The “Dead” are Celebrating!

By Antonio De Jesús Aguado

In Mexico, The Day of the Dead is not a time for crying; it is a day to make fun of death and call it “parka”, bony, skull, big teeth. The Day of the Dead in this country is a reason for partying among rituals, adornments, and joy. This is the season when the cemeteries are attended by people who visit and remember their loved ones among marigold flowers, food, live music, and liquor. This is the annual day when the ground in front of the main altar of the parish of St. Michael the Archangel rises up to show sanmiguelenses and visitors what it keeps underground in the crypts, including the remains of important people.

During the celebration, huge offerings are placed in the historic center and the streets are taken over by catrinas of all ages, walking solemnly, then suddenly disappearing.

The Day of the Dead—celebrated on November 1 and 2—was appointed in 2003 as an Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO. The celebration is a symbol of worship of death and also fascination of the unknown. According to the tradition, November 1 is the Day of the Holy Innocents—which includes babies, children, and adolescents who passed away before having sexual relationships—arriving to their offerings, that include lots of candies, toys, and food. After midday all the dead arrive, and they go back to the afterworld by the end of November 2.


The Education and Culture Department, with the help of schools and civil organizations, will start placing the offerings in the Jardín Principal early morning on Friday, October 31. The main offering—situated in the esplanade—will be a tribute to Tehua, a folkloric singer who lived in San Miguel for 20 years before going to Mexico City to follow her music dreams. Tehua, who was respected and loved by old sanmiguelenses, passed away on August 21, a victim of cancer. Her remains were given homage in the Ángela Peralta Theater, and later she was cremated. The National Council of Arts and Culture qualified her as “the best voice of the Mexican folkloric music.”

The offering will be inaugurated with an indigenous ceremony by a concheros group with pleas to the four winds for the souls. After the blessing of the altar, the students of the pre-Hispanic music workshop from Casa de la Cultura will give a special performance, followed by folkloric dances at 7:30pm. La Calaca Festival—a group that organizes alternative events to those that already exist in the city for the Day of the Dead—will pay a tribute to Mexican actor and comedian Cantinflas, and at 10pm Andrea Brook will play the world’s biggest stringed musical instrument, “The Sonic Butterfly.”

Catrinas, dancers, and theater

The CBTis  was the first preparatory school in San Miguel; this year it is celebrating its 40th hanniversary, and in their cultural activities of the week they will include a catrinas parade that will leave on Friday, October  31 at 7pm from calzada de la Aurora, featuring mojigangas (giant puppets) and live music. The parade will continue its path though Hidalgo, Plaza Principal, San Francisco, and Juárez, to end at the Plaza Cívica where there will be folkloric dances, reading of Calaveras—literary compositions of the death—and live music

Thirteen years ago Rancho Los Labradores started the first catrinas parade in the city, after a group of three of four people dressed up as catrinas and walked the streets giving candies to children. Now that parade is one of the showiest in town and features more than 300 catrinas and catrines. Those who participate in it start gathering on November 1 at the Rosewood hotel, where experts paint their faces and offer them a cocktail. At 7pm the group leaves the Rosewood and walks towards the Jardín Principal, through Aldama street.

The same day, at 7pm, a catrinas parade featuring music and mojigangas, organized by the House of Culture, leaves from el Chorro and walks through Nemesio Diez, Zacateros, and Canal, to end in the Jardín Principal.

The students of the Technologic University of San Miguel will present a play on Saturday, November 1 at 7pm, called “Muerte de mis amores, muerte de mil colores” (Death of my heart, death of one thousand colors”). This play portrays the human attachment to material stuff as well as ideas, not having considered that in the end, death will gather them all in the same place. The catrina is the main character in this performance. The play was written and is directed by Euridice Blas Romero, who describes the play as “happy, festive, and beautiful.”

Cemeteries and crypts

The cemeteries in town, operated by the local administration, will be open from 9am to 8pm on November 1 and 2. One of the most historical cemeteries is that of San Rafael, located in the San Juan de Dios neighborhood. According to historian Graciela Cruz, it has been closed for more than 50 years and was originally opened—ironically on November 2, 1770—when it received its first guest (an unknown person), the victim of an epidemic. The pantheon was located adjacent to the San Rafael Hospital and the current church of San Juan de Dios. The pantheon, according to Cruz, received most of its guests between 1785 and1786, and the deceased were mainly victims of epidemics and famines. During the Independence War, characters like José María Arévalo and Miguel Malo were buried there; Malo defended the city from intruder and bandit Bernardo Lara (El Huacal), whose remains are also there.

Under the main altar of the Parroquia, there is a gap that shelters the parochial crypts, holding in its interior ashes and remains, proclaimed as “crypts set up for kings” by Maximilian of Hapsburg, Emperor of Mexico, when he visited the place on September 14, 1864. In that space, which will be open from 8am to 8pm (respecting the services hours), is the tomb of Mexican president (1830-1833) Anastasio de Bustamante, which is easy to find— there is a Mexican flag marking the grave. Father Remigio González, who received the insurgent army during the Independence War at the Shrine of Jesus the Nazarene of Atotonilco, is also buried there. He sculpted the miraculous image of Our Lord of the Column, sheltered in the Santuario de Atotonilco. In the crypt, the visitors also can find an inscription on the wall for father Juan Manuel de Villegas, who was in charge of the Holy Inquisition in the Villa of San Miguel el Grande. Free entrance.

Find the whole program of activities for Day of the Death in Qué Pasa.

To invoke a visit from those living in the afterworld, the tradition states that people must place offerings in their honor. The offering should have all the following essential elements; if one is missing, the soul of the loved one could lose the path. If one element is missing the traveling soul can get mad, and if that is not enough, the offering could lose its charm.

Glass with water to mitigate the soul’s thirst after the long path and to strengthen its way back.

Salt to purify the soul and corpse of the deceased and scare away the bad spirits.

Candles to guide the soul’s way to its old home.

Incense for cleaning the house from bad spirits and protect the souls.

Flowers as a sign of festivity and to make the loved ones happy.

Petate (palm straw) as the base of the offering and to be used by the soul as a cushion where it can rest.

Dog mainly for the offering for children, a dog will make them happy when they arrive to the party and they will take the dog with them to help them cross the perilous waters of the Chiconauhuapan River on their way to the Mictlán, a place inhabited by the dead.

Bread was an element added by Catholicism and represents Jesus Christ’s body.

Sugar cane and bread to make a representation of the tzompantlis. The bread represents the heads of the enemies and must be stuck in the sugar canes.

Optional elements

Picture of the homage person—this must be hidden and can only be visible with a mirror; that means that the person can be seen but does not exist anymore in this world.

Favorite food of the visitor; the traditional dish is mole with chicken. Tamales, atole, cut paper, hot chocolate, and liquour for the adults. Alfeñiques (candies) can also be added, mainly skulls with the name of the invoked soul.

According to the CDI (National Council for the Development of Indigenous Towns), in the Mesoamerican culture, corpses were burnt and the soul would find its path according to the death that the person had; those that drowned would go to Tlalocan (paradise of the Rain God); the women who passed away during childbirth and those warriors who died on the battlefield would go to the temple of Sun God Huitzilopoxtli. All others would go to the Mictlán. In the journey to Mictlán, the corpses had to cross mountains, winds full of knives, and perilous rivers as well as other obstacles; for that reason the soul needed to be guided by a dog. After several years the soul was dissolved.

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